on writing

Creative Non-Fiction & the Fine Art of Taming the Bear


The author of My Miserable Life grimaces from behind the table at her book signing. A frowning middle-aged couple crowd the table, the wife leaning aggressively toward the writer. “Look, we’re sorry,” she says. “If we had known you were going to be a writer, we’d have been better parents!”

This is the work of Bizarro cartoonist Dan Piraro, but it’s an all too real fear for creative non-fiction writers. How do we tell our stories without upsetting the people who contributed to them? Many aspiring writers are paralyzed into inactivity by the fear of doing harm. I was one of those people; well, I am one of those people, but I’m a little better now. Along with my personal flavor of batshit craziness, fear of shaking up people’s emotional snowballs kept me from writing for two decades. The last thing I wanted was to poke at hibernating bears and encourage them to growl at me again.

That’s what bears do — they growl. That is their bear nature. The problem is that I am a writer every bit as much as they are growling bears, and denying my writer nature was contributing to my increasingly bad mental health. I lived so much in fear of upsetting anyone (both in my “real” life and my nonexistent writing life) that I simply withdrew from living. If I do nothing I can’t do any harm, or so the logic went.

What I didn’t realize is how much harm that I was doing to myself. My anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder kicked into overdrive, the relationship that I was trying to salvage was destroyed, and I found myself running toward oncoming traffic at 3 a.m., hoping that a drunk driver would swerve and hit me. Even in death I didn’t want to upset anyone with questions of suicide. An accident seemed more palatable.

I don’t often thing about writing in magical terms. All that talk of muses and on and on strikes me as pretentious bullshit from people who want to feel special. Writing to me is no more than vocation and craft, not unlike carpentry. Writing is an act of building big things from smaller things, and that is that. But it isn’t. I may err toward practicality in my effort to strip writing of its mysterious artifice, but for some percentage of the population “writer” (or perhaps the medium agnostic “storyteller”) is as immutable as sexuality. One doesn’t choose which gender one is attracted to, and for those so inflicted one doesn’t choose to be a writer.

Similarly, just because one is attracted to women doesn’t mean that one is attractive to women, nor does being born a writer guarantee that one is any good at it, but that’s another topic. My point here is that denying my writing nature was killing me, so I began writing again. Rather than fiction, I chose to work in creative non-fiction. All of my favorite writers have a strong autobiographical thread running through their work — Mark Twain, Hemingway, Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, John Fante — so I wanted to try my hand writing what I enjoyed reading.

The first couple of pieces that I set loose into the world filled me with dread, but I was somewhat comforted by the notion that I was a flea on the ass of humanity. No one will ever read what I write, I reasoned, but they did — not many, but a few.

I panicked. What if my parents stumble upon this crap? I was a 40 year-old man worried about upsetting his parents. The last thing I wanted to do was to hurt my folks. Sure, my childhood was bumpy, but whose isn’t? Why was I writing these things, anyway? Was I seeking some kind of revenge on those who had wronged me? Was I exaggerating to a point that non-fiction veered into fiction? Was I telling other people’s secrets? Aren’t there two sides to every story?

I considered the smaller pieces from which the bigger stories were constructed. What was the function of each little anecdote? We’re all witness to many stories each day, after all — which ones are ours? The answer is no different for creative non-fiction than for fiction: The business that reveals character or moves the plot forward is good and the rest is junk, regardless of whether I like the anecdote or have fallen in love with my own writing.

What I’m talking about is more than just the old “kill your darlings” cliche. This cuts to the fundamental nature of memoir writing: It is not punitive. It is neither someone else’s story nor their secrets. There are not two sides. Memoir is my story, my emotional landscape, my truth. Anything that falls outside of those parameters is at best a harmless digression and at worst abusing the format to settle personal scores.

I resigned myself to the fact that my parents would eventually discover that I was a closeted writer trapped in a middle class man’s body, and when that day came there would probably be fallout. I didn’t relish the thought, but I accepted it because I felt that I could defend my work. There’s nothing there that doesn’t pass the “reveals character or forwards the plot” test.

As for others, if they were bit players in my sad little comedy I usually changed their names or grafted them onto other real-life humans in order to protect their identities, but not always. Sometimes this was conscious (I wanted to thank so and so for his or her goodness) and sometimes it wasn’t (I’m lazy and sloppy). If I ever turn these slightly bigger chunks into the inevitable biggest chunk — a manuscript — I’ll be sure to clean that up.

Where I was still in contact with people, I requested permission before including them in my narrative. What an incredibly brave vote of confidence on their part to say yes, and in exchange I tread as lightly as I possibly could. I held this material to the same “reveals character or forwards the plot” standard, changed names where requested, and altered details to protect my friends’ privacy. The omission of critical backstory left some of these characters seemingly without motivation, which is another thing that I’ll need to fix eventually.  Even with permission and my best efforts, I still upset some folks. It’s inevitable — bears are going to growl.

The more I wrote the better I felt, not because of some mystical crystal-clutching healing power but because I was doing the kind of work that I was supposed to be doing. My insides were aligning with my outsides again. Say it loud, I write and I’m proud.

If any of this feels familiar, you need to dig deep and answer one simple question: Are you more scared of the bear or of slowly killing yourself by denying your own nature? Honestly, I don’t know that I would write if I didn’t have to. The emotional stakes are high for a writer, regardless of the genre. No matter what you write you’re going to piss somebody off. I’ve offended people by writing about things as innocuous as beer or as neutral as “let’s include everybody.”

But I don’t have a choice. It’s this or die, literally. If you dig deep and come to the same conclusion, make peace with your nature and get to work. Make sure your building blocks pass the “reveals character or furthers the plot” test, cut the rest and accept that you’ve done the best that you can do.

And then let the bears growl. They can’t help it — It’s what they do.

Categories: on writing

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